Has anyone at city hall asked themselves how
Toronto’s 60,000 vehicles-for-hire will earn a living?
by Mike Beggs
The New Year rolled in with still no sign of Toronto Municipal Licensing & Standards’ promised one-year review of the new Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw.
This comes at the most challenging of times for Toronto’s licensed taxi industry, having seen its revenue base further eroded by an unlimited number of Uber X vehicles, and now competing against yet another American ridesharing power, Lyft – not to mention the new Toronto-based startup, InstaRyde.
The continued delay of MLS executive director Tracey Cook’s report reflects broader indifference to taxi industry concerns at city hall -- save for Council’s recent decisions calling for Uber to disclose how many Torontonians were affected by the massive 2016 data breach.
“It’s not only the report. It’s everything that happened over the past three years,” observes Lucky 7 Taxi owner Lawrence Eisenberg.
And, he doubts Cook’s report will change anything when it finally arrives.
“You have to consider the attitude of the people doing the regulation,” he continues. “Is it going to come out in favour of the City? Absolutely? Of the taxi industry? Absolutely not.”
With the business near the breaking point, iTaxiworkers Association director Mohammed “Reza” Hosseinioun suggests, “The City will never work for the taxi industry.”
“(Tracey Cook is) refusing to have a meeting – the head of Licensing! She must be getting some kind of directions,” he alleges. “The issue here is collecting fees from TNC’s. They know how much money it is. We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars. Where does this money go?”
He suggests if Mayor John Tory is re-elected next fall, “this business is finished.”
“Right now, you see he’s not hearing anything on the Review,” he alleges. “But, this will be the first thing the City will do after the election. He’s a deft politician.”
Veteran Ambassador driver Rudy Valverde is equally disillusioned.
“I think (promising the Review was) just to shut people up, and they’re doing nothing,” he alleges. “Right now, they’re turning a blind eye because the Mayor is in love with Uber. He’s not going to ramp up anything now.”
Of the Review’s delay, Best-Tech Taxi owner Baljit Sikand says, “That’s what we have seen on and off from the MLS (over the years). They say they will do something, and they don’t seem to do it in time.
“I don’t see any changes coming in the bylaw. I don’t think the councillors have the appetite right now to deal with taxi issues. Not until next Council.”
While having no hard numbers to go by, he claims there’s a continued lack of enforcement against Uber X vehicles – be it for not displaying the required stickers, for taking street hails in violation of the bylaw, or for brazenly picking up from the designated taxi stand outside Union Station.
“There are 50,000 Uber cars, and I hardly see any with a sticker on them,” he alleges. “We have (almost) 6,000 cabs, and we (all have roof-lights, and numbers). So, there’s 40,000 Uber cars who should be (marked).”
This only exacerbates safety concerns surrounding passengers – particularly young women traveling alone late at night. Uber’s driver background checks are already under heavy media scrutiny around the world, and last month Toronto Council directed staff to report on the prospect of mandating cameras in TNC’s, with Councillor Jim Karygiannis citing several sexual assault charges against Uber drivers in the past year.
Cameras have also proven to be a successful deterrent to crimes against cab drivers. But in mid-December, Winnipeg became the latest Canadian city to approve ridesharing, while acceding to Uber’s lobbying to make cameras non-mandatory for its drivers.
“(These politicians), they were so committed to safety, Uber wants in, and it’s not so important anymore,” alleges Hamilton owner/operator Hans Wienhold.
Eisenberg suggests Toronto Council is not going to rock the boat either, as long as it is receiving its 30 cents per run from Uber and other TNC’s.
“That’s all they’re interested in. They’re not interested in protecting the public, or the industry,” he alleges. “The removal of the driver training school, and DOT inspection centre proves that.
“Do you know how many years it took to get what (safety measures) we’ve got?”
He suggests the taxi industry had a better regulatory situation, when it fell under the purview of the long-defunct Metro Licensing Commission, and its general manager Carol Ruddell-Foster.
“It worked better with the MLC. They worked with the taxi industry and the public was allowed to be there. You could bring things forward. The problem is, they took everything for information and didn’t use it,” he comments.
“The City used to deal directly with the taxi industry. Not anymore. Who was on the road? The taxi industry, not anyone else.”
He points to the City’s new King Street transit plan, and its effects on cab drivers – who are now required to make a right turn off King, after traveling just one block.
“It doesn’t make sense. If they wanted to move the streetcars, make it a one-way street -- like they did with Adelaide, and Wellesley,” he suggests. “They could do that with King, and Queen. You want to move the traffic, move it. You’d have four lanes.”
“King Street is a disaster,” Hosseinioun agrees. “They basically killed the taxi business, because people are not taking taxis on King Street. We are sitting here for hours, and hours.”
He cites one lunch-hour run,
which ended abruptly when he informed the passenger he could not travel straight down King to a restaurant.
“He stopped the ride. And I lost my spot, too,” he relates. “When I wanted to turn right, he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I’m in a rush.’”
He says conditions are such that, “Every day I see a guy gone”, with a few drivers losing their mortgages, and others having to, “drop their children out of university, and ask them to go to work. These are the facts in this industry,” he says. “How these people have suffered.”
Wienhold relates that with Hamilton Council’s licensing of Uber under open entry, “you see long queues of taxicabs all over the city.” He estimates the 1,200 licensed taxi drivers have each taken a $10,000 hit in yearly income.
“These politicians, they take photo opp’s for every food bank, then they turn around and they do this to cab drivers -- just about the most marginalized people in this city, without batting an eye,” he complains.
Valverde says Toronto cabbies have lost “a chunk of money to Uber, maybe half.”
“I travel the whole city. Business is down to the bottom of the toilet,” he relates.
“The only thing that’s saving me is I’m working with a WheelTrans contract (with Co-Op/Crown).”
With Lyft’s arrival he adds, “It will get worse before it gets better. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.
“I feel for the longest time we were like the scapegoat (for the City), and if anything goes wrong it’s always the cab industry’s fault. There’s a stigma to being a cab driver. We’re not treated as professionals, or with respect.”
More than 15 years on the road, a Beck driver named Elias says, “The taxi business has been quiet since the coming of Uber. It’s getting worse by the day.”
He points to “so many costs” including insurance, maintenance, brokerage dues, gas, and parking, not borne by TNC drivers to the same extent.
“Does anybody care about taxi drivers?” Sikand asks. “Right now it’s the supposed busiest time of the year, and my drivers tell me it’s really hard to make a living. And cars are sitting in the garage at this time of year -- especially at night.”
“I can see stress on their faces, and you can see it on mine, too. Fleets are dying. I don’t know how long fleets can survive.”
So where does the taxi industry turn now?
“To the courts,” Eisenberg says.
“We’re not waiting for the City to do something for us, because they won’t. The City is interested in the money it can generate from us,” he alleges. “The taxi industry is dead as far as the City is concerned.
“Hopefully, the taxi industry will smarten up and band together and fight the City. The only course we’ve got left is in the courts. They won’t listen.”
Eisenberg, and veteran owner/operator Gerry Manley are among those who believe there is ample proof of negligence on the part of the City, as it implemented the VFH bylaw with promises of, “a level playing field” between taxis and TNC’s.
“Everything the City did through the years was documented. That’s No. 1. There is evidence,” he suggests. “The City says it has a right to do all this stuff. Possibly they do.
“The City doesn’t care, but the courts might. That’s our last resort. Sue the City for billions of dollars.”
He points out that the industry has had a few victories over the City in court down through the years, but stresses, “You’ve got to have a good case.”
Manley maintains the new bylaw is, “full of unfairness, violations, and conflicts of senior statute, and is discriminatory against taxi owners and/or drivers, violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.”
“It is the City’s fault,” Hosseinioun agrees. “Why are we not going after them? Nobody wants to do anything, because we need money.”
Others suggest the industry would be fighting a losing battle, because it would have to prove negligence on the part of the City, and that a social contract existed between the City and taxi operators. What’s more, they note the industry doesn’t have the deep pockets for a drawn-out court battle, should the City begin filing appeals.
To date, there has been no real progress in a 2015 class action suit filed by a Toronto cab driver, nor in an Ottawa court action.
Of going to court, Sikand scoffs, “Who has the money? Nobody will give any money.”
“Even if we have a case, you need money -- hundreds of thousands of dollars. It could go to a second or, third level. The City has money. So if we go to the Supreme Court, they will take it to Appeals Court.”
And while the Toronto Taxi Alliance did win a partial concession in court in 2014, he adds, “It is very hard to get the industry (on the same page). There are how many brokerages, five or six, and they don’t get together. And, there is no single person who has the right stuff to bring every stakeholder together and have a meeting.”
Wienhold suggests such talk of law suits probably won’t go anywhere.
“Most of the people, I think, feel there’s hardly any point. It will go on forever and in the end you will probably lose,” he says.
“(But), you just don’t toss people out on the sidewalk, especially not because Uber comes in and says, ‘We’re changing the whole way you do business.”’
But Eisenberg says he and others are working on it, “and we’re not going away.” He claims the City willingly told owners the plate represents their “taxi driver’s pension”, and adds, “there was staff there to witness it, and they’re still around and confirm that’s what the City said.
“I want what’s coming to me. I earned it,” he adds.
“Either you grandfather everybody, or compensate the taxi industry. And it’s not only the owners, they should be compensating the drivers.”